At Edinburgh International Film Festival, Ira Sachs spoke about his newest film, PASSAGES. The story is a wonderfully prickly tale about a narcissistic film director Tomas (Frank Rogowski), who upends his marriage to Martin (Ben Whishaw) by sleeping with a woman, Agathe (Adele Exarchopoulos). Our review by Jim Ross described it as a “film [that] captures the exhilarating highs and lows of new and broken romances”.
Connor Lightbody: How are you enjoying Edinburgh?
Ira Sachs: I love it. I first came here when I was 10, with my mom and two sisters. That was in 1975, and I always remembered the small streets, gothic buildings, and greyness, which I find so romantic. The festival here is very alive and vibrant and full of originality. There’s a tradition of art in the city that makes people interested in the present, in what’s happening now. I feel that with the cinema in the city too.
CL: What drew you to the characters we see in PASSAGES? Specifically where your trio are all in a state of transitive limbo?
IS: That’s a nice way to put it. I feel that, in a way, during the pandemic, I was in a state of transitive limbo myself; it was all a little unknown. I paid attention to that feeling of being unmoored, and how quickly our lives can change without notice. The film pays attention to that change, and sometimes that happens over the course of our lives, but sometimes it happens in the course of a moment. I think that’s one of the beautiful things about cinema: it records those moments. I wanted to make a film that is a series of those moments, or as I like to put it, a series of middles. That transitive nature keeps the film alive, tense, and suspenseful, because anything can happen.
CL: What was it like shooting in Paris?
IS: It was great. I first lived in Paris in 1976 as a student, and I didn’t speak very good French or have any friends, so I ended up spending all my time in the movie theatre. I saw 197 movies over three months, and my life was changed. My relationship with the city is over decades. I’ve had relationships there, and breakups there. I’ve cried. It’s a beautiful, ugly thing. That combination of beauty and ugliness is at the heart of PASSAGES. I feel very comfortable in Paris, so it was a natural place to shoot and is so cinematic. The history of French cinema has been the most important to me as a filmmaker, so I found that I had the liberty to tap into my love of French cinema while remaining my fully American self.
CL: Have you ever ridden a bike through Paris at midnight as Tomas does?
IS: Oh, I’m really scared of riding a bike in a city, but I think Tomas does a lot of things I wouldn’t do, which is part of the pleasure of watching him. He’s like an id for the audience, he crosses social norms, and that’s the pleasure the audience gets when they watch him. He’s like a cross between Travis Bickle and Buster Keaton.
CL: You likened Frank Rogowski to Buster Keaton in a separate interview.
IS: Yeah, the danger part. Buster is all kindness, Travis is the opposite, and then Tomas is someone who can cause real damage in that middle.
CL: There’s moral sanitation occurring in film and media. Passages is open and free and fluid about nudity and sex. I would love to know your thoughts on that within the industry as a whole.
IS: Human beings in cinema seem to be disappearing. We have films about dolls and superheroes. Those are not interesting to me, and it’s not what I look for in cinema when I go to the movies. I’m worried that a tradition of films made for adults is disappearing, which is a tragedy because these films don’t feel like they’re made for adults. That’s what I want to do. If you make films for adults and make them honestly, they include intimacy and sex and love and the things that people engage in every day. There’s nothing original about making movies about human relationships, but it’s what I do and will continue doing.
“I’m worried that a tradition of films made for adults is disappearing, which is a tragedy because these films don’t feel like they’re made for adults. That’s what I want to do. If you make films for adults and make them honestly, they include intimacy and sex and love and the things that people engage in every day.”
CL: Sex is a fundamental part of our lives, asexuality notwithstanding.
IS: I would say that asexuality is still a part of sexuality, and it’s important to keep it in the conversation. It’s not common in the States, so I don’t know much about it.
CL: Nor myself. I know very few asexual people and don’t know enough about it to really comment on it.
IS: I would say the same, so I don’t explore it. What I wanted to do was make a film of pleasure. I was trying to turn people on. Which doesn’t mean gratuitous or exploitative; I was trying to make a film where the beauty of bodies in different lights and colours was embraced.
CL: It’s not difficult to turn people on when you’ve got Frank Rogowski.
IS: Hahaha, yes, very much.
“What I wanted to do was make a film of pleasure. I was trying to turn people on. Which doesn’t mean gratuitous or exploitative; I was trying to make a film where the beauty of bodies in different lights and colours was embraced.”
CL: The film kind of embodies a whole chaotic bisexual vibe.
IS: The film is the embodiment of ‘want’ in some ways and how ‘want’ leads to action which leads to trouble. The distance between what people have and what they want is where you find suspense. To me, this is an action film. It’s a film of suspense, but that suspense is emotional.
CL: I remember being in the audience in Berlin, and that final messy pivot for Tomas had the entire audience groaning.
IS: Well, he is playing out those things that most might want to do in certain moments but don’t for good reason. One of the great things about cinema is seeing people do dangerous things from the vantage point of your chair. You get to live vicariously through these movie stars. The movie embellishes the iconic quality of the three actors in a way. It takes pleasure in the iconic quality of the actors.
CL: It’s all a bit soap operatic.
IS: Yes, and also a really visual film, so you pay attention to the story, but the impact of the film comes from those beautiful figures on the screen and their bodies and the shapes and costumes.
CL: Lovely segue – can you tell me more about the costumes because very few people can pull off a sheer vest?
IS: Yeah, I worked with Khadija Zeggai, based in Paris. She and I talked a lot about movies and not being frightened about making an unreal film. There was a certain moment where we had a choice to make about these characters, whether they would be characters of the everyday or characters of cinema. In particular, you can look at Agathe (Adele Exarchopoulos); we fashioned her as a Bridget Bardot type. We put her in clothes and make-up that accentuated her presence. We had a lot of fun with the costumes and spent lots of time trying things on and seeing what was possible. We had three good-looking actors who made everything we dressed them in seem easy. I tried to bring my horniness to the set in that I tried to enjoy what the actors had to offer. It’s provocative and playful.
CL: How important is it for you to show queer sex and love on screen?
IS: It’s important to me as it’s a part of my life. I don’t want to be shy or repressed. I want to be transparent about showing on screen the experiences I’ve had. I want to create a cinema that gives a wider view of life. I’ve been rewarded by people sharing their experiences with PASSAGES who have told me that my cinema has given them a kind of roadmap for certain things in their lives that they don’t see anywhere else. That’s intimacy and means my work connects with people in ways that are most personal. I had to go back in time and watch films that showed me what was personal, films in the 1970s that were more open than what we see today, and that gives me inspiration.
CL: Were you ever worried that the messiness of the relationships on screen could be interpreted as criticisms of open relationships?
IS: No. I don’t think of things in that way. Filmmaking is about drama and conflict, and that conflict is what is interesting.
Passages screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2023 and opens in UK cinemas on September 1st.